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The Arts
May 10-16, 2006

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Family Values: Tom DeWester and Jim Johnson deliver English accents with aplomb in 'Misalliance.'

A Touch Of Class

Pear Avenue keeps the laughs on the edge of parody in 'Misalliance'

By Marianne Messina

WITH ONE ACTOR to every three or four patrons, Pear Avenue Theatre's nine-cast-member production of George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance feels a bit like a private entertainment for an audience of aristocrats—a fitting conceit. In the day of Shaw's play, 1909, the value of an aristocratic title was fast losing ground against the value of cold hard cash. As the action begins, the business-owning, upper-middle-class Tarletons are about to wed their daughter to a young lord in a neat union of title and cash. But daughter Hypatia (Kathleen Brower with hypnotic blue eyes that can look smug, impish, seductive or anything else they want to) admits she'd like more than the effete, simpering brainiac Bentley Summerhays (Justin Weatherby). Hypatia is tired of being "good and nice and ladylike" and "wants adventures to drop out of the sky," as her dad puts it. And who should drop out of the sky in Act 2 but a dashing aviator named Joey Percival (Christian Thomas) and his passenger, Polish acrobat and fully liberated woman Lina Szczepanowska (Nichole Y. Hamilton).

This is good old-fashioned British humor, full of witty exposition (or as Hypatia laments, "Talk, talk, talk") on issues of class, gender and age. Like her father, John (Tom DeWester), who argues that he is young because of his "superabundance of vitality," Hypatia wants to feel and respond to that vitality rather than the stifling sense of propriety.

On a refreshing set by Michael Walsh—white wicker love seats, plenty of potted plants, floor tiling in a pattern reiterated on the walls—actors resist the temptation to create caricature in spite of the upper-class British accents. Still, under William Kenney's direction, two characters (possibly three counting Lina's little salute every time she says her family name) are allowed parody right up to the edge: Weatherby's Bentley and Jim Johnson's Gunner. Weatherby's sense of presence (he improvises natural-seeming pauses through audience laughter) and his quicksilver facial and positional changes hold the line between larger-than-life and overdone. And Johnson, as Gunner, the unstable working-class socialist who breaks into the Tarleton home, is just so edgy he makes you wonder how unhinged Johnson's real-life personality might be.

As the "man-woman" Lina, Nichole Y. Hamilton towers in height over every actor except, appropriately, John Musgrave (Bentley's "imperialist" father, Lord Summerhays). When Lina yanks John Tarleton up off the chair by the back of his suit jacket (which got a huge laugh) or when she carries young Bentley off to the gym, she's very believable. Tom DeWester is a delight as the successful businessman and avid reader John Tarleton. He's winsome, salesmanlike, sometimes wistful, sometimes patronizing. Carolyn Ford Compton's Mrs. Tarleton is warm and understanding even while being the voice of propriety. And Brower's Hypatia keeps you guessing—is she an overspoiled brat or a liberated woman?—in a good way.

Even before the play starts, symphonic marches and waltzes (Jeannie Forte, sound design) smoothly direct audiences backward in time to the turn of the 20th century and suggest a "grand old time." The production delivers with a seamless unraveling of tangles in the last half of Act 2 that keeps the laughter coming nearly nonstop.

Misalliance, a Pear Avenue Theatre Production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through May 21 at the Pear, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View. Tickets are $10-$25. (650.254.1148)

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